There's always plenty of feeling when Wests Tigers take on Parramatta and today's game should be no different as two contrasting starts to the season collide.
On one hand stands Ivan Cleary's men — brilliant through the opening six weeks with a number of stirring upsets over competition heavyweights, before suffering a last start defeat to the Newcastle Knights.
They still sit comfortably inside the top eight on the ladder with the competition's best defensive record, but if they are to be the "real deal" in the eyes of many, a bounce back win is simply expected this week.
On the other hand is Parramatta, a team at the complete other end of the spectrum and table with just one solitary win to their name all season. Plagued by inconsistencies, the Eels were down and out at 0-7 before a rousing performance last week saw them thrash the Sea Eagles by 34 points at ANZ Stadium.
All of a sudden their halves looked to have clicked, their forwards were motoring through the middle and the Parramatta that many had expected to see all season were piling on the points in front of their fans.
However, was that result simply a flash in the pan or a sign of what's to come from the blue and gold?
As a result, there's certainly no shortage of storylines around both sides today, and having met just a month earlier, plenty of interest in a match between two different but equally determined football teams...
1. What can we take from the Round 4 result?
It was only a month ago that these two sides met, and while many are saying it's a "different" Parramatta this time around after one win, it's definitely a stretch to say that we can't take any lessons from that day. For starters, it's important to note how well the Eels began the contest — leading 6-0 — and it took a consistent, composed performance from Wests Tigers to work back in to the match. You'd think that would again be required today from Ivan Cleary's side, and don't be surprised to see them start much better this time around after struggling in that exact area last week against Newcastle. Aside from the start, it's also worth remembering how freely Wests Tigers were able to move the ball once they did win the battle up front, so look for the likes of Esan Marsters and Corey Thompson to again cause havoc for the Eels' outside backs should their big men answer the call from Coach Cleary and take over the middle.
2. Which team will come out of the blocks firing?
More to the point on the start, it's worth looking at the last fortnight for both sides and seeing that the way each team begins is crucial to the final result. In Round 6, Wests Tigers were firing on all cylinders against Manly and amassed an incredible 26-0 lead at half-time off the back of 80 percent possession and a near flawless completion rate. In Round 7, it was the Knights who had the upper hand, and eventually came home the better of the two sides to win. The same thing goes for Parramatta, who were kept quiet in their first half against Canberra and simply didn't have enough to get the job done in the second, but were brilliant against Manly the following week and ran away with a comfortable win. It goes without saying that starting well is going to be key, but perhaps even more so this week given the way in which both sides have shown already this year that they are a force to be reckoned with once confidence is on their side.
Cleary gives final word on Eels clash
3. How big is Clint Gutherson's return for the Eels?
It's a great sight to see Clint Gutherson back from injury for the blue and gold, and it should come as no surprise that his return at fullback (and as captain) coincided with Parramatta getting their first victory of the year. His combination around the middle with Corey Norman and Mitchell Moses remains key for the Eels, but simply having him in the side seems to have given Brad Arthur's side an extra lift. As such, shutting down his space on kick returns and on those sweep plays in attack is going to be the key for Wests Tigers. Gutherson is one of the fittest players in the game by all accounts, so limiting his opportunities is pertinent for the visitors this Sunday — particularly after the way in which last week's opposing fullback in Kalyn Ponga was able to cause all sorts of headaches down the left edge in attack.
4. Are Wests Tigers forwards going to win the battle of the big men?
Minus Russell Packer and Alex Twal this week, Wests Tigers big men certainly have a tough ask on their hands to contain the Eels forwards but it's one that is pertinent to their chances of victory today. We've seen already this season that when afforded space, Luke Brooks and Benji Marshall are as good as any halves combination in the competition — both with their kicking but also individual running games. If the duo are to find space to target the Eels' edges, it's going to come off the forwards winning the middle — something which they didn't do last week against Newcastle. Ben Matulino pulled no punches about the need for his side to improve and you'd think the Kiwi international is the key for his side today, particularly if injuries arise like they did last week and the forwards are required to go above and beyond in their efforts.
5. Which halves combination will land the more telling blows?
When they met earlier in the year, it was Marshall and Brooks who came out on top in a clear victory over Norman and Moses but we might be in for a bit closer of a fight this time around. The Eels playmakers were at their best last week albeit against a sluggish Manly outfit, and with confidence under their belts, will again prove tough to handle for the Wests Tigers' defence. Shutting down opponents (and particularly halves) has been one of the hallmarks for Wests Tigers this season, and the return of Chris Lawrence on the left edge will no doubt give the visitors a huge boost in this regard, but it's still up to the edge forwards to make good reads and the middle forwards to cover well on the inside to completely shut down Parramatta.